Outside Art With Banjo
Karen Dalton, a former staple of the Greenwich Village folk scene, fled to the mountains of Colorado in 1966 with her husband Richard Tucker. Their place was so remote that it lacked an actual address. The facilities were so primitive that they lacked running water. Still, Dalton had her horse to ride, a banjo to play and a voice with which to sing. And what a strange voice; critics frequently compared her vocals with jazz singer Billie Holiday. That’s only true if one thinks of the raspy Holiday singing of the fifties. Dalton has a much more brittle and aching style. Her recordings sound as if her voice is always about to break.
This is certainly the case on these newly discovered recordings of Dalton in her cabin during 1966. These songs were not meant to be released. Instead, friend Carl Baron just turned on his reel to reel tape recorder while visiting. The tapes lack sonic dynamics by today’s compressed standards, but they reveal the warm intimacy of a musician just singing and playing at home with family and friends listening.
But there is also a formality of presentation here. You never hear Dalton interrupted or the audience respond by clapping. She doesn’t talk between songs. These are just 14 tracks that serve as demos, as if Dalton thought perhaps of recording them in a studio at a later date. It should be noted that her husband does play guitar on one cut, Fred Neil’s “Little Bit of Rain”, and sings in the background on four other cuts. His presence does not make a significant impression. Most of the material recorded here never found their way to vinyl.
One exception is the folk song “Katie Cruel”, which went on to become the tune for which Dalton was best known after recording it five years later. The maudlin lyrics concern a once popular girl who has been rejected by her friends and the townspeople for reasons unclear. Sung in the first person, the version here is more vituperative than sad, unlike the one from the ‘70s. The main character sings of herself with pride and the others with spite. Her refusal to conform is a badge of honour. Dalton’s banjo playing confirms this attitude as she hits the strings hard and plays in the melody in martial time.
Dalton was friends with Tim Hardin, and three of his songs are included here. As far as I can tell, these are Dalton’s only recordings of the tunes, “Reason to Believe”, “Shiloh Town”, and “Don’t Make Promises”. Rod Stewart’s version of “Reason to Believe” recorded several years after this one, is probably the most famous. Stewart offers a bombastic and melodramatic rendition. Dalton takes the opposite approach. Her persona is self-effacing. Dalton stresses the vowel sounds in the words to express her pain “If I listen loooooong enough to yooooh”, she croons emphatically. She blames herself for putting up with an errant lover, and expresses a willingness to continue if she could only convince herself that things would change. But Dalton knows better.
The other tracks are a mix of traditional tunes (“Cotton Eyed Joe”, “Green Rocky Road”, Mole in the Ground“), jazz and blues (“God Bless the Child”, “Misery Blues”), assorted tunes from the public domain (“2:19 Train”, “Hallelujah”), and another Fred Neil composition (“Other Side to This Life”). Dalton sings and plays them all with conviction, as if she is singing her life story. The fact that many of these are tragic unfortunately matches up with her fate. She struggled with drugs and alcohol and reportedly died of AIDS after a period of living homeless in the streets of New York City.
That’s a different story for another time. Here is the more resilient Dalton, whose playing and singing captures hard times but who still sounds strong. This is the sound of a woman who left the contemporary world during the pop explosion of the ‘60s for a home out West. These cuts may be little more than glorified home recordings, but they are more than charming. They capture the heart and soul of a gifted talent in an unadorned frame. It is outsider art of a high order.
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